Column: Chicago Bulls could break the mold of the city’s sports futility this winter

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It’s probably too early to be overly concerned about the Chicago Bulls’ shaky start.

The season is only 10 games old after Sunday’s 119-108 win over the Detroit Pistons, and we’ve seen this Bulls’ core long enough to know they can go on a roll when it plays up to its talent level.

But with the rest of our professional teams enduring nothing but agony and heartbreak in 2023, and the possibility of a nuclear winter for the Chicago sports scene on everyone’s minds, the onus is on the Bulls to save the city.

The Bears and Blackhawks have no shot. Only the Bulls have a chance to break the mold, and it has to start now.

After a rare three-day break in the schedule, the Bulls entered a nine-day stretch Sunday that could have a significant impact on the rest of the season.

Five of their six games will be played at the United Center, giving the Bulls a chance to revert to the form of the start of the 2021-22 season.

Their only road game is Monday in Milwaukee, where they’ll play an uber-talented Bucks team that’s still trying to figure out how everyone fits defensively, as evidenced by a 5-4 start.

By the end of the Bulls’ stretch Nov. 20, the second of back-to-back games against the Miami Heat, they could find themselves back in the thick of the Eastern Conference, or buried near the bottom of the league standings before Thanksgiving. Either scenario is believable.

Their 3-6 record heading into Sunday included tough, late-game losses to Brooklyn and Phoenix that might have changed the narrative a bit. Zach LaVine said after the overtime loss to the Suns there are no moral victories, but the energy the Bulls displayed after overcoming a 22-4 first-quarter deficit was enough to provide hope that all is not lost.

DeMar DeRozan, who paced the Bulls with 29 points and four blocks and joked that he was “coming” for Dikembe Mutombo’s shot-blocking record, said the win was big heading into the showdown against the Bucks.

“We lost a tough one to a great Phoenix team the other day that would’ve given us great energy going into these games,” DeRozan said. “We passed that one, had to pay Detroit back for getting us at their place. But we’ve got another opportunity to play against an extremely talented Milwaukee Bucks.”

They began Sunday’s game against the Pistons by missing their first eight shots, while the five starters were a combined 9-of-30 from the field more than midway through the second quarter. LaVine, who scored 51 points against the Piston in a loss in Detroit last month, had only one field goal until dunking a lob from Ayo Dosunmu at the 3:38 mark of the second quarter.

The overall numbers the Bulls have put up in those first nine games reflected a team struggling to get its head above water. The Bulls were 25th in points per game and field goal percentage, 28th in rebounds per game and 27th in assists per game. If you’re near the bottom in almost every major category, it’s hard to suggest you’re better than what your record indicates.

And considering this was mostly the same team that underachieved last year, it doesn’t bode well for the future. Health will be a factor, and DeRozan has been able to stay playing despite taking some body blows.

“Resiliency,” DeRozan said. “I’d be lying to you if I told you I wake up every morning feeling like a spring chicken. I’ll figure it out.”

Alex Caruso, coming off a monstrous performance against the Suns, guarding Kevin Durant while adding 19 points, was out with a left toe strain he suffered in practice. Coach Billy Donovan wouldn’t call it day-to-day but didn’t think it would be a long-term injury.

Durant afterward called Caruso a “phenomenal player,” which is high praise seldom attached to a sixth man whose game mostly relies on defensive effort.

Replacing Caruso’s defense would be difficult enough, but finding someone to give the Bulls the same kind of energy would be next to impossible. Dosunmu took on Caruso’s minutes Sunday and scored 19 points, hitting his first six shots while making four steals.

“I know we have a pretty deep team, and the better I get, the better (chance) I get in, the more I can push the team,” Dosunmu said. “I think that’s going to make us even a better team down the line.”

The Bulls started out in sleepwalking mode Sunday, going scoreless for 3 1/2 minutes until DeRozan’s reverse layup ended an 0-for-8 start. Fortunately they were playing the Pistons, who were equally inept at the outset. The Bulls fell into another 11-point hole before finally waking up. Nikola Vučević’s 3-pointer with 5:36 left in the first half gave them the lead and they held off several Pistons’ charges until pulling away at the end.

The Bulls obviously missed Caruso’s presence on the court, as well as the typical boost from the crowd mesmerized by his style of play. Despite his relative lack of minutes, Caruso ranked 12th in the NBA in steals (14), and was tied for first with 33 deflections.

It’s no wonder he’s turned from cult figure with the Los Angeles Lakers to one of the league’s more admired players. His popularity in Chicago has soared, even as the Bulls have floundered in the early going.

The poor start by the Bulls has led to media speculation that management eventually might have to shop Caruso, who is in the third year of a four-year, $36.9 million deal that right now looks like a bargain. If they decided to go that route, Caruso certainly would fetch a lot in return. But it also would be short-sighted, the kind of move that might alienate more fans than it’s worth.

Caruso’s value to the Bulls can’t really be seen in his numbers. Like Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier before him, Caruso’s penchant for throwing his body around, taking the hard foul and sticking to opponents like gum on their customized shoes helps make a bad Bulls team semi-watchable.

Just last summer Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf watched his White Sox front office deal popular third baseman Jake Burger, a trade meant to fortify the pitching down the road. Executives Ken Williams and Rick Hahn were later fired, for multiple reasons, so dealing Burger turned out to be one of their final acts.

Bulls vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas doesn’t have to worry about suffering the same fate as his South Side counterparts, at least not yet. But dealing Caruso could be the last straw for some Bulls fans currently on the fence.


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